The legend of Babe Ruth hitting a home run at the old West End Park ball field is a myth. But Hall of Fame inductees Branch Rickey, Rogers Hornsby and Connie Mack were at the park, along with the first commissioner of baseball, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis.
West End Park had a covered wooden grandstand built for the St. Louis Cardinals to have spring training camp in Orange for the 1921 season. The Cardinals played several pre-season games there that year and again in 1922. After that, the ballpark was used for decades by generations of baseball players in Orange, some who went on to play professionally.
The Texas State Historical Commission has approved a historical marker to honor the baseball park. The Orange County Historical Commission will hold a dedication ceremony for the marker at 2 p.m. Sunday, October 23.
The marker is at the corner of Green Avenue and 14th Street where the memorial for the old Lutcher Stark High School was built. The site is currently the West Orange-Stark Middle School.
The ballpark was north of Green Avenue on school district property north of Green at 14th and Cypress Avenue. Even though the wooden grandstands were demolished about 1979, metal stands for spectators were used for another 30 years for baseball games. The West Orange-Cove school administration eliminated the remainders of the field in 2009.
H.J. Lutcher Stark, one of Orange’s wealthiest citizens, formed the Orange Athletic Association to attract a professional baseball team to Orange. The group built the fenced field and grandstands. Manager Branch Rickey moved his Cardinals to Orange after a previous spring training season in Brownsville. “Rickey decided to move away from the border town of Brownsville, probably because he did not want the players unnecessarily tempted by nocturnal distractions,” author Lee Lowenfish wrote in the 2009 book, “Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman.”
The team arrived in Orange by train in late February 1921 and stayed at the Holland Hotel, at the northwest corner of Fifth and Division streets in downtown. They took the field for their first practice on February 28. “The fence around the park was dotted with men and boys perches in small groups of two or three who appeared highly pleased with the situation, regardless of their most uncomfortable seating facilities,” The Orange Daily Leader wrote.
The first game at West End Park was Friday, March 4, 1921 against the Philadelphia Athletics under manager Connie Mack. The Athletics were having spring training in Lake Charles. Grandstand tickets were $1 and general admission was 75 cents.
The biggest pre-season game of the year for the Cardinals, though, wasn’t played at West End Park. The Cardinals played Babe Ruth and the Yankees in Lake Charles. A number of people from Orange went and even rode the same train with the Cardinals. Ruth hit a homerun in that game in Lake Charles and the Yankees won 14-9. Attendance was 2,190.
Orange received national attention because of the spring training camp and the Cardinals even helped local business. The Yellow Pine Paper Mill had an order of 50 tons of paper from a business in St. Louis. The company wrote “if the Cardinals get in such condition at Orange that they win the pennant this season we will buy five carloads of paper per week from you. Please take care of the Cardinals.”
The Cardinals ended up third in the National League that year. They had perfect weather for spring training in 1921 and Rogers Hornsby had the highest batting average in Major League Baseball that year with .397. Rickey was ready to come back to Orange in 1922.
The next training camp didn’t go as well. When the team arrived on February 28, 1922, the weather was so cold and wet that the players couldn’t take the field. Night time temperatures left a coating of ice on puddles and holes.
An oil discovery ten miles out of town in the Orange Oil Field (later Orangefield) disrupted the town and the baseball team was not the center of attention. The players, though, were able to tour the oil field. Members of the Orange Rotary Club provided automobiles for the players to travel over the wooden plank roads to see the oil boom town.
On March 21, 1922, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner of baseball, arrived by train to watch the Cardinals in their last spring game at West End Park. Mayor W.E. Lea declared a “half holiday” for Landis and requested “all business houses and manufacturing plants cease operations for the afternoon in order that their employees may take advantage of greeting the distinguished visitor,” according to the local paper.
Landis arrived that morning by train and wanted to play golf on the new country club, Sunset Grove that H.J. Lutcher Stark was building. The course had not opened to the public buy Landis and Rickey played the first foursome at the course with local business leaders F.H. Farwell and George Holland.
Once again, the Cardinals finished third in the National League that year. Hornsby won a rare triple crown, finishing top in homeruns, batting average and runs batted in.
In 1923, though, Rickey decided not to return to Orange for spring training. The field and the grandstands stayed for decades as generations of baseball players hit, ran and caught at West End Park.